Facilitating peer mentoring groups, critiques and events online

A case study by 12ø and collaborators on running crit events online, based on their recent collaboration with Artquest

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We are 12ø, a collective based in London, motivated by interesting processes rather than shiny exhibitions. Our current members are Eva Duerden, Kelly Lloyd, and Lou Macnamara. 12ø began 30works30days in 2015 to encourage making and experimentation. 30/30 is a month-long project where participants are required to submit a new piece of work daily for the month of April. In 2020 when Artquest funded free places for participants, some web development and artist fees for leading online crits there were 1,108 artists of all ages participating from 42 countries, and over the course of the project 18,016 works were submitted.

As 30/30 took place during the first full month of COVID19 lockdown, we decided to add an element to the project that allowed people to meet each other and participate in activities together. Over the course of the month we ran three events: “Drawing in Tune”, a meditative drawing activity with Julia Vogl; “High-Intensity Interval Critting”, a speed critique with Chloe Cooper; and “Improv with Strangers”, an improv acting workshop with Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

The following advice comes primarily from lessons learned in the coordination of these three events and is interspersed with observations on events we have attended, plus words of wisdom from each of the event facilitators. This article is organised into steps to take before, during, and after the event, with directive advice highlighted in bold. We will conclude this article by delving into Chloe Cooper’s “High-Intensity Interval Critting” event as a case study.

Platform

Sign up

We asked participants to register for the first event on Eventbrite, and the subsequent events on a combination of Google Forms and Zoom. Eventbrite works well with larger numbers of participants, and you can embed a good amount of information in the registration confirmation email including the link to the hosting platform. Google Forms is simple to control as it’s just the form, and it allows you to get more detailed information from participants which could be useful in selection and preparing them for the conversation. Asking participants to register on Zoom allows you to pre-assign breakout groups, and make sure only those who have been invited can attend the conversation. Be clear if the event will be recorded and include the latest time when people will no longer be admitted into the meeting.

Hosting

Each event was facilitated using Zoom, and this will be reflected in the terminology we use in this article. We’ve found Google Groups randomly kicks people off as the number reaches 10 or more, everyone seems to have trouble remembering their password for Skype, and Discord is great at handling large numbers of people with impeccable sound quality and bandwidth for lots of text,. However, unlike Zoom, Google Groups, and Skype, Discord is encrypted for privacy.

Zoom will allow you to record the conversation, share your screen and audio, break out into groups (which can be pre-assigned), create a waiting room to manage participants’ entry into the conversation, and mute/unmute participants. Participants who do not want to be seen can turn off their camera, and if you do not want to see your own image you can “Hide Self View” (be warned that the other participants can still see you if you haven’t turned off your own camera).

Zoom’s only limitations are the potential privacy issues and its price. If you would like to host an event for more than 40 minutes, you need an upgraded Zoom account. If you would like to host an event for more than 100 people you will need another upgrade. And, if you would like to host a webinar (a panel of people with invisible audience who ask questions via the chat), you will need to purchase a license.

Planning

Online vs. Face to Face

When you run a crit face to face, you can have a lot of productive in-between time and overlap. You get a lot more content in a shorter period of time, you can transgress social niceties in ways that build relationships, and you have the benefit of body language that often communicates just as much about the work and its relationship to the audience than what people choose to say.

When you run a crit online, dialogue has to be structured so people know when and how they can talk. People tend to be very polite and they try not to speak over one another, especially as that causes audio interference which drowns out both voices. Developing a structured conversation, and telling people how to navigate that structure, will empower people to speak: they will know it won’t be rude or at the expense of another person.

Frequency, Timing + Structure

You can hold events once a week if you have an imminent end goal in mind. You can hold events fortnightly if you want to use them as a regular motivator for practice. You can hold events monthly if you want them to be a reliable form of educational entertainment. Don’t be surprised if you have drop-off between registered participants and attendants: a lot of people will have recently spent the bulk of their professional and social time on their devices.

Events online have a more defined beginning and end, and people tend to tune out after an hour and a half. If you want a longer event, find a way to break it up into shorter segments. If you wait too long for late attendees, or there is a major technical difficulty, things become exhausting. You have to sustain energy throughout the session.

The event will go more smoothly if it is highly structured. Be prepared to facilitate heavily, from nominating people to check in, to cutting people off when you need to move on. You need to take ownership over the time that you have.

Preparation (Facilitator)

Guest Hosts

When preparing to facilitate an event, you need to place yourself in terms of your role and position your actions accordingly. If you invited a guest host to facilitate, in Julia Vogl’s words, “let the artist be the artist and not a digital host.” For example, when holding face-to-face events, you wouldn’t expect a guest speaker to help you arrange the seating and sort out the PA system. That’s not their job: it’s your job. Your job as the host will include, but is not limited to:

  • admitting people from the waiting room;
  • answering messages and questions on the chat;
  • troubleshooting people having technical issues;
  • adding bios and links to the chat;
  • and managing the timing.

If there are multiple hosts, perhaps appoint someone to manage the technical side of things.

Build in additional planning time with a guest host to:

  • develop ideas over the format and ways to care for people;
  • run through their technical needs to locate any barriers that might require reconfiguring the event;
  • build flexibility into your programme to allow guest hosts to postpone, if they need to, to attend to their own needs.

In your opening email to the guest host, make it clear if you can pay them a fee and what this fee would be. Do the paperwork required so that you can pay the guest host within 30 days of the receipt of their invoice.

Public Event

If your event public consider the way you publicise your event and think how will that affect the demographic of your participants. Consider how many people can you manage effectively, making sure everyone has enough time to check in as a group and also as individuals. If there are limited spaces, consider the fairest way to choose participants that is most in line with the ethical code of your group and in solidarity with your facilitator. Do you want to have only those presenting included, or would it suitable to have an audience?

Be sure to time the end of your sign-up period several days before the event, so that you can tell your guest host exactly how many participants they should expect. It will also give those who have been selected to participate enough time to prepare, and a chance for you to find replacements for those who respond that they actually can’t attend.

Before the event (Facilitator)

Plan what the artist wants to present, and how you can make a sustained viewing of this work possible. Ask everyone for their work beforehand, and share it ahead of the event so that people have time to meaningfully engage with the work, which will take longer on screen than during a live session.  Consider sharing about a week in advance of the meeting taking place.

  • Single Image/Object Documentation – collate all of the work into one presentation where possible. This will allow everyone to have the highest resolution view of the work, and the chance to speak with the work in front of them. It will reduce the time required for each participant to find their work and share their screen, and the possibilities of poor image quality, fleeting viewing time, and internet connectivity issues.
  • Video/Performance Documentation – ask everyone to watch the videos beforehand, and then have a silent version of the video running in the presentation to be able to recall specific moments
  • Writing – ask everyone to read the writing beforehand, and then have the writing or portions of it available in the presentation

Communication

Email the participants with all of the relevant information in one message; with so many moving parts it’s easy for necessary instructions and links to get lost. Make sure to clearly communicate to the participants what they need to prepare, what they will engage in, and what they should expect, including if the meeting will be recorded.

Timing

Events online have a more defined beginning and end. Build a buffer for late attendees but be strict about when it is realistically too late to include them in the conversation. Include the time when people will no longer be admitted into the meeting in the sign up/registration information.

Before the event (Participant)

Presenting Artists

If you are presenting work, plan carefully how you want to use your time. How can you choose work to share which focuses the conversation? How will you listen and take notes at the same time? Do you need to record the conversation? If so, you need to ask people for permission beforehand, and let them know what you will use the recording for. Give people an option to have their cameras turned off if they prefer.

Those Presenting Feedback

Do your research. If you already have the artist’s work, look/watch/read it beforehand and jot down some initial feedback and questions. If this artist is new to you but has shared their website or Instagram handle, find out more information about them to provide a greater context to their work.

During the Event (Facilitator)

Ground Rules

When speaking to a group of people for the first time, it is good practice to go over some ground rules about how to speak to one another and about the work. These could include useful language (i.e. using more descriptive words rather than “good” or “bad”), the difference between criticism vs. constructive criticism, and being clear about how racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and classist behavior and language will not be tolerated and will be grounds for immediate removal from the conversation. If this will be a repeat event with the same people, you could make time in the first meeting to write the ground rules of the conversation together.

Warm Up/Check in

If there is a small enough group, it is good to check in. Perhaps even just people saying their name, the gender pronouns they use, and how they are feeling that day, or answering a question relevant to the upcoming conversation. If the group is large, perhaps you can create an activity where people visually check-in. Or, in the words of Sophie Chapman and Kerri Jefferis, “what are prompts/exercises people might need in order to get in the right headspace?” If the group is too large for this, you could make time for breakout groups so people have time to talk and share on a more personal level.

Instructions

Clearly communicate the schedule of the event at the beginning of the session. If you are going through a technical process, can you demonstrate that process?

Technical back-up

We communicated over a WhatsApp group chat, so that we could check in with one another during the session. This was especially useful when we were coordinating different elements of the session, and all in separate breakout rooms. It also ensures you have a backup communication channel if there are technical or internet difficulties on Zoom.

Documentation

If you have all the participants’ permission you can record the conversation. The recording will be from the perspective of the person recording: if you use “Gallery View” you will see thumbnails of everyone’s screens, and if you use “Speaker View” you will only see a large image of whomever is speaking with a few thumbnails of other participants. If you go into breakout rooms, it will only record the room of the host of the conversation; if you want to record multiple breakout rooms, the host can give participants the permission to record. Each recording will be downloaded onto the hosts’ computer after the session, so if other people record, you will need to ask them to send you those recordings. Lastly, take screenshots and be sure to save the chat since there is often a good conversation and some resources you can share from there.

After the Event (Facilitator)

Email the participants after the event specifying where they can send feedback and share relevant resources, and include useful comments from the text chat. Send documentation and feedback to any guest hosts as this gives them greater perspective on how the event went, but also could be useful to gain future opportunities by evidencing their experience.

12ø offered our hosts the opportunity to debrief immediately after the event, which came as a welcome time to reflect. Julia Vogl, Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis all wished that the event could have been longer to offer the same kind of reflection to our participants, writing:

“I wish we could have lingered after the event for non-structured response and sharing and chit chat.” – Julia Vogl

 “We had imagined that people might perform a couple of their dialogues back to the wider group at the end of the event – but no one really wanted to be put on the spot with so many other people. We feel like if we had longer to work with them all they may have been more comfortable sharing.” – Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis

You could consider extending your event to participants who want to stay longer and who need more time to feel comfortable sharing with the wider group. What could the digital equivalent of going for a drink or meal after the event be?

Read a case study of artist Chloe Cooper’s High Intensity Impacting Critting session here.

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